Pentagon Fires War Court Official Who Was Attempting to Negotiate End to Guantánamo Death-Penalty Trial

The sudden firing by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (left) of the Pentagon official who oversaw military commission trials at Guantánamo Bay has raised concerns of political interference in the already tumultuous legal proceedings in the death-penalty trials of the five men charged with plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The New York Times reports that Mattis fired Harvey Rishikof (right), who served as the Convening Authority of the Guantánamo tribunals, as Rishikof was engaged in plea negotiations that would potentially have spared the Guantánamo defendants the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon provided no explanation for the February 5 firing, and David Nevin—who represents accused attack-mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—told The Times that “[t]he firing fairly raises the question" of whether the Pentagon was attempting to unlawfully influence the convening authority. The Office of the Convening Authority is responsible for approving cases for trial, plea agreements, reviewing convictions and sentences, and providing resources to defense teams. Military law prohibits even the appearance of “unlawful command influence” over the handling of a case. Nevin said the defense has "an obligation to try to learn everything we can" about possible improper influence, and he has asked prosecutors to turn over information relating to Rishikof’s firing. At the same time Rishikof was dismissed, the Pentagon's acting general counsel, William S. Castle discharged Rishikof's legal advisor Gary Brown, also without explanation. Brown and Rishikof’s firings have focused renewed attention on the dysfunctional military tribunals at Guantánamo. The death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of planning the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, was thrown into chaos in October 2017 when his entire civilian defense team resigned amid allegations that military officials had violated attorney-client privilege by eavesdropping on legal meetings at the Cuban facility. Rishikof intervened in that case after the judge, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, held the chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, in contempt for allowing the resignations. Spath has directed that proceedings in the U.S.S. Cole case continue without expert death-penalty counsel, even though the only remaining member of Nashiri's defense team, Lieutenant Alaric Piette, graduated law school in 2012, does not meet the American Bar Association standards for death-penalty defense, and has never tried any murder case. During a January 2018 pretrial hearing in the case, Spath criticized Piette for seeking a continuance in the case until expert death-penalty counsel could be appointed, telling Piette to “engage in self help” by attending special training to become “more comfortable handling capital matters.” On February 5, Piette, who stayed on the case out of concern for his client’s rights, told The New York Times: “I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, but I don’t think I really had a choice.” Piette “doesn’t come close to being qualified" to handle the case, according to Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University. “So a death penalty case is basically going forward without a lawyer. If that is what we think passes as a court system, we’re in big trouble,” she said. 

(Charlie Savage, Fired Official Was Exploring Resolution to 9/11 Case Precluding Death Penalty, New York Times, February 10, 2018; Carol Rosenberg, Secretary of Defense fires Guantánamo war court overseer, Miami Herald, February 5, 2018; Dave Philipps, Many Say He’s the Least Qualified Lawyer Ever to Lead a Guantánamo Case. He Agrees., New York Times, February 5, 2018; Carol Rosenberg, Military judge to lone USS Cole lawyer: ‘Engage in self-help’ to learn capital defense, Miami Herald, January 23, 2018.) See U.S. Military and Representation.